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Congressman Alcee Hastings, after career of triumph, calamity and comeback, dies at 84

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    Congressman Alcee Hastings, whose life was marked by perseverance, calamity and a comeback, has died. He was 84.

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    Hastings crusaded against racial injustice as a civil rights lawyer, became a federal judge who was impeached and removed from office, and went on to win 15 congressional elections, becoming Florida’s senior member of Congress.

    He died Tuesday morning, a longtime friend said. His death was confirmed in a statement from his family.

    In late 2018, Hastings was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. For much of the ensuing two years, he continued public appearances between medical treatments, but more recently he hadn’t been in public. In recent days, he had been in hospice care. “Alcee was a fighter, and he fought this terrible disease longer than most. He faced it fearlessly, and at times even made fun of it,” said Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness.

    RELATED: Special election will fill Alcee Hastings seat; timing is up to DeSantis »
    The Democratic congressman was a singular figure in South Florida politics; he repeatedly broke barriers and made history — not always positively.

    Congressman Ted Deutch, another South Florida Democrat, described Hastings at a 2019 luncheon in his colleague’s honor as someone “who can stand up to a bully, who can represent people whose voices need to be heard, who’s unafraid to say what needs to be said.”

    Howard Finkelstein, the retired four-term Broward County public defender, lauded Hastings as “one of the greatest men who has ever lived in Broward County.”

    President Joe Biden said he admired Hastings’ “singular sense of humor, and for always speaking the truth bluntly and without reservation.”

    “Alcee was outspoken because he was passionate about helping our nation live up to its full promise for all Americans,” the president said in a statement. “Across his long career of public service, Alcee always stood up to fight for equality, and always showed up for the working people he represented. And even in his final battle with cancer, he simply never gave up.”

    Civil rights
    As a newly licensed young lawyer, Hastings moved to Fort Lauderdale, where he partnered with W. George Allen starting in 1964. Broward was not a welcoming place for a young Black man in the early 1960s. When he arrived to join Allen’s firm, a motel wouldn’t rent him a room.

    During much of the ’60s and ’70s, Hastings has said, there were parts of the county where it wasn’t safe for Black people. The many civil rights cases filed by Hastings and Allen, who died in 2019, included lawsuits against a restaurant popular with other lawyers and judges — which wouldn’t serve them because they were Black — and desegregating Broward County schools.


    Speaking at a national gathering of Black elected officials at the Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Hastings recalled what it was like when he came to the community. “I couldn’t go to that beach that you all see now,” he said.

    In the early days of his career, the justice system in which Hastings practiced was dominated by racists, Finkelstein said at the 2019 luncheon honoring him. Hastings was a “howling voice” attempting to change Broward from a “little cracker town that was racist and mean and vicious.”

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    In 1977, then-Gov. Reubin Askew appointed Hastings as a Broward Circuit Court judge. In 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter nominated Hastings to the U.S. District Court, making him Florida’s first Black federal judge.

    But that lifetime appointment lasted just 10 years — and turned into the lowest point of Hastings’ career.

    In 1981, Hastings was indicted on charges of conspiring to solicit a $150,000 bribe from an FBI agent posing as a racketeer trying to buy his way out of a prison sentence. In 1983, Hastings’ criminal trial ended when the jury found him not guilty.

    Six years later, Congress took up the issue. Concluding he lied during the criminal trial, the House impeached Hastings and the Senate convicted him on eight of 11 articles, removing him from the bench. The Senate did not vote to disqualify him from holding future office.

    RELATED: Defending Greene, Republican congressman asks: What about Alcee Hastings? »
    Decades later, that period of Hastings’ life remained controversial.

    Many Republicans said it meant he couldn’t be trusted and shouldn’t be taken seriously; even after he’d been elected multiple times to Congress, some objected every time his views got news coverage.

    Finkelstein, who became a lawyer at the same time Hastings became a federal judge, disagreed. He said the prosecution was retaliation for Hastings’ refusal to bow to the wishes of powerful, establishment interests.

    “In the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the government only — only — only went after Black men that ascended to power,” Finkelstein said. “That is what they did, and they came after Alcee — all the king’s horses and all the king’s men — with everything they had to destroy this man.”

    Congress
    Three years and two weeks after the Senate convicted him, Hastings was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming one of three Black Floridians who went to Congress that year — the first time Florida had sent a Black representative to Washington since 1877, when the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction ended.

    He was re-elected 14 times, making him dean of the Florida delegation. When he faced opponents from Democrats in primaries or Republicans in general elections, he typically won by margins of at least 3-to-1. Sometimes no one even came forward to run against him.

    Hastings represented most of the African American and Caribbean American communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties, though the boundaries and district numbers changed over the decades, sometimes extending to parts of Hendry, Martin and St. Lucie counties.

    His presence was precisely what was envisioned by drafters of early 1980s revisions to the Voting Rights Act, when they provided for districts with boundaries drawn to maximize the election chances of minority lawmakers.

    “He made it his life’s goal,” said Mitch Ceasar, who met Hastings in 1974, “to fight for a group that had never been spoken for.”
     

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